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A Study in Scarlet

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Shiro is hungry.

He has been hungry, in fact, for two hundred and ninety-nine years and counting. It is a constant ache, an eternal prickle in the back of his dry throat, one that is only temporarily sated by the soft necks bared to him at soirées such as this one.

It is a hunger that always demands more.

At times, it feels useless to even try to feed to its satisfaction.

Tonight, he has not tried. He has not had time, amidst the paperwork and pleasantries, for it is of the utmost importance to make certain that everyone is satisfied, in their own ways, whether they be thralls or lords alike.

Shiro knows all too well that too many vampire lords have historically not been thoughtful or transparent in selecting their guests for these soirées, especially of the human variety. It amuses them to lead hapless urchins and foolish young women into traps, promising them a night of revelry only for them to be ravished in the shadows, bled to death...or until they begged for death to take them.

Once, that might have amused him, too. But he is older now, wiser...and now, he has Keith.

Shiro peers over his shoulder to look at where Keith sits at his desk, a fine mahogany piece Shiro insisted upon, legs crossed and chin cradled in his bare hand. He never wears gloves. He finds them impractical.

Shiro cannot find fault in this quirk of his, for Keith is no gentleman, and besides – his hands are a pleasing shape, small but strong, and the shade of his skin reminds Shiro of a warm summer’s day. Keith gestures with his free hand as he talks, waving the quill pen about idly and sending ink splattering across his rolled-up white sleeve. Shiro suppresses a sigh. One day Keith’s clothes will not be sullied by ink stains, but today is not that day, evidently.

“— and then of course there is the matter of Miss Katie Holt, who as usual has tried to switch out her white ribbon for a red one despite being far too young, and petite enough to be knocked over by a light breeze, much less engage in the night’s entertainment, hardy of will though she may be — sir, are you listening to a single word I’m saying?”

Shiro straightens up, and steps away from the balcony, which overlooks the garden where the guests are already spilling out into, glasses of champagne chiming amidst peals of laughter in the restive night. His home, a stone’s throw from Grosvenor Square, borders the sprawling lushness of Hyde Park. Shiro chose this house because the forested land reminds him of earlier days, and earlier hunts on nights much like this one. Those hunts, however, ended differently...

“Of course,” Shiro murmurs, inclining his head to Keith’s exasperated expression. “You are the finest steward in all of London.”

Keith, as usual, is unswayed by flattery, especially from him. “Oh, hush. I’m just doing my job.” He eyes Shiro critically. “When was the last time you ate?”

Shiro frowns right back at him. “At afternoon tea,” he says. “Don’t you recall I commented on how sweet the scones were?”

Keith is unimpressed. “You know I am not speaking of scones.” He rifles through his papers, and taps one of the names on the ever-growing list of invitees. “You’ve had this one before, haven’t you? Griffin? As I recall, you were fond enough of him.”

“Keith,” Shiro says, warning but weary. “I have not the fortitude to entertain a thrall tonight.”

“You don’t have the fortitude because you haven’t been feeding properly,” Keith retorts, but shuts his mouth when Shiro steps forward, eyes dark.

“I will feed when I please,” Shiro says. “And that is not now.” He raises an eyebrow. “In any event, I do not think you’re one to talk. Have you eaten dinner?”

Keith eyes him over the papers. “I have been doing my job,” he says.

“Then it is your job to go and eat dinner,” Shiro counters.

Keith makes a face at him, but rises from his chair anyway, muttering, “Well, I suppose everything is more or less in order; the most important thing is that all of the ribbons have been distributed, save the ones I had set aside for the latecomers –”

Shiro cuts him off with a firm hand on his shoulder, and knows from the startled way Keith’s jaw clicks shut that he moved too close, too fast. Shiro takes an apologetic step backwards, but not too far. “Keith. I will see to it that everyone is properly accounted for. You spend too much time worrying over my affairs when everyone else is enjoying themselves. If you need permission, this is me giving it, freely.”

Keith exhales, his smile slight but sly. “Since when have I ever needed permission from you, sir?”

Heat churns thick and molten in his core. The truth is, Keith never has. Not even when he first arrived on Shiro’s doorstep, a filthy street rat from the worst part of Whitechapel too desperate to afford fear. He had been a scrawny boy of fourteen then, and all but demanded to work for Shiro despite knowing precisely who he was, what he was.

He had demanded sanctuary in exchange for work all while Shiro could see, through his matted mane of black hair, the ugly ragged punctures on his throat scarcely a centimeter from his jugular, still bleeding. Sloppy work, meant to maim, not kill. Through the grime of the city Shiro had smelled the reek of the creature that left those marks on Keith. Keith has not smelled even remotely of this sour miasma of pain and terror since he first stepped foot in Shiro’s household, and Shiro takes great pride in this.

To this day, Shiro does not know if Keith purposefully sought him out or if he was simply the closest to the scene of the crime – back in those days, he lived on Warden Street, a short sprint away from the Ripper’s grisly series of murders. He had moved to West End with Keith after the fifth and final murder, and there they had remained for ten years together and counting.

At the time, Shiro thought he said yes to Keith because he pitied him. But day after day, year after year, he realized he needed Keith more than Keith needed him. Shiro was far too used to others cowering and groveling before him, both humans and vampires alike. But Keith did neither of these things. He was respectful, yes, but he treated Shiro like – well, like a person, something Shiro once thought he himself had forgotten how to be.

It was often easier to simply play the role of cruel vampire lord, as he was expected to.

But not with Keith. Never with Keith.

Keith reaches out and taps his chest. “Come back. You were wallowing in your own thoughts again, weren’t you?”

“Not wallowing,” Shiro replies, only a tad defensive. “So, what will it be? Will you stay here and have a dull evening alone, or will you allow yourself to enjoy the gathering you made possible?”

Keith’s face reddens; Shiro’s eyes trace the coloring more than a little helplessly. Keith scratches the back of his neck and purses his lips. “Sir, you know full well that I am only the one who keeps your books and accounts in order –”

“And manages the household wages and expenses, and has connections to most every thrall who attends, and knows this city and its many advantageous secrets inside and out, and generally keeps me sane besides –”

“Alright, alright, I will go downstairs if it means you will stop waxing poetic,” Keith interrupts, blushing furiously now. Shiro can feel the heat coming off of him, like a fireplace in the dead of winter. He resists the urge to lean into it.

“About you? Never,” Shiro chuckles, but relents, tilting his head as Keith returns to the desk to rummage in it, his face still tinged pink. “You have your ribbon?”

“Mhm,” Keith says, lifting one of the strips of white satin from its carefully-labeled box. The system the two of them invented – mostly Keith, Shiro would assert, though Keith would deny it – is simple, but effective:

White ribbons are for those who do not wish to partake. They will not be approached with propositions, but they may choose to approach and proposition others if they change their mind.

Red ribbons are for those who are there to partake, and may be freely approached and propositioned.

Black ribbons are for those who are already taken.

Keith pauses, and sets down the white ribbon. He fiddles with something in the drawer that Shiro cannot see. “What is it?” Shiro asks, giving in to the urge to lean forward, this time.

Keith withdraws a red ribbon from its box. “You said I ought to allow myself to enjoy the gathering…”

“That is not what I meant.” Shiro’s tone is sharp, sharper than he expected or intended, and Keith almost drops the ribbon in surprise.

His brow furrows. “Then what did you mean? I –” He frowns. “Or do you not wish me to wear the red ribbon for fear of shaming your good name with my wanton behavior, sir?”

Shiro swallows, and forces himself to keep his voice even. “No, no. That is not – no. I simply did not mean that you needed to be – thralled, and all that entails, to enjoy the gathering.”

Keith folds his arms. “And if I wish to be?”

Shiro’s hunger is replaced all at once by vicious nausea. “As you said,” Shiro retorts, “you have never needed my permission.”

“You don’t want me to,” Keith says, eyes widening in realization. “Why don’t you want me to wear the red ribbon?”

“Surely you need not ask,” Shiro sighs.

“Yet, I am asking.”

Shiro gives him a reproachful look. “Am I not allowed to be concerned for your wellbeing?”

Keith’s indignant expression softens. “Oh. Is that all? Do not worry. Your guests respect the ribbons, nowadays.”

“White and black ribbons, yes. Red ribbons are different,” Shiro warns. “They look for those wearing red. They may not even ask, before…”

Keith huffs. “Yes, I am well aware of how it works. The red ribbon is an invitation in and of itself. And I am telling you there is no need to worry. I am not worried, nor should you be.”

“How are you not worried?” Shiro asks, quiet. He thinks of the attack he has all too often imagined — of Keith pinned to the blackened bricks of a narrow alleyway in the East End with a clawed hand holding him down and fangs working deeper into his veins, soaking his neck and torn clothes in sticky red, ignoring his struggling, his screams, savoring the way fear turned his blood acrid as only the most sadistic among them do.

But Keith looks at him then, no longer a chary child but a young man glowing with health and beauty, and says simply, “You will be there, and I trust you will let nothing unwanted happen to me.” His lips quirk. “And, believe me, one does not live with a vampire lord for a decade without picking up a few tricks of their own.”

Shiro has never been able to say no to Keith. He inclines his head. “As you wish, then.”

His heart hurts, but he has no claim to Keith, not in this, no matter how much he longs for the honor.

It is ironic that for all his power, and in spite of vampires’ well-earned reputation of predatory exploitation, he cannot simply take what he wants most.

He could, he thinks. He could, and Keith might not even try to stop him, even unthralled. Yes, Shiro could lunge at this very moment, sink his teeth in and fill Keith’s mind with helpless ecstasy while Shiro drank him dry.

And Keith knows he could do this, at any moment. Keith has always known this. And yet, he has stayed. He has chosen to trust Shiro. Such a choice is both laughably foolish and undeniably brave. But perhaps Shiro is the foolish one in the end, for he thinks he would rather walk into the burning daylight of a Saharan summer in the nude than harm Keith.

So he could, but he doesn’t. He just watches as Keith lifts the red ribbon out of its box and loops it around his neck. He fumbles with the clasp, for it catches on his hair, and Shiro moves forward without a thought.

It is not to attack, however, but to cover Keith’s hands gently with his own, sweep Keith’s messy hair away from the nape of his neck, and carefully close the ribbon’s clasp just above the first slight bump of vertebrae. Keith holds his breath, and keeps still. He only breathes again when Shiro steps away. The hair on his arms is lifted and his skin prickles with goosebumps.

Out of respect, Shiro usually keeps away from the dark, swirling well of Keith’s mind, but now he nudges briefly into it, out of more concern than curiosity. He is unsurprised to find confusion there, uncertainty, and some embarrassment. But there is also excitement, warm and sweet and trembling.

Shiro pulls away — he does not wish to know anything more in that vein. He may well attack someone before the night is done if he were to see which damned guest Keith is so excited about that he wears the red ribbon for them.

“Thank you,” Keith says, only a bit breathless. He touches the red ribbon and tilts his head back and forth. Shiro bites his tongue. “How does it look?”

“Tempting,” Shiro deadpans, though he means it with every fiber of his being, and Keith lets out a startled bark of laughter.

“I suppose that is the point, yes,” he says. “Though, I’m hardly as well-dressed as the other guests.” He notices his stained sleeves for the first time and frowns. “Should I change clothes, do you think?”

“No,” Shiro replies too quickly. “We’re already well into the night, and I doubt people are paying much attention to attire by now.”

The truth is that between his looks, his scent, and his unintentional charm, Keith is already far too alluring, and Shiro cannot allow him to make himself even more appealing with fine clothes. Absolutely not, that is where he draws the line.

“Oh.” Keith shrugs. “Fair enough, then.” He raises an eyebrow. “Do you plan to accompany me downstairs, or will you stay here and take my place among dusty paperwork?”

Shiro clears his throat. “I believe I will remain here a little longer. If I were to arrive with you, while you were wearing that, then people might assume…”

Keith exhales. “That you had thralled me?” Shiro tenses. “Would it be so bad if they assumed that?”

“Yes,” Shiro says, shortly. He cannot elaborate.

Keith’s face, unexpectedly, falls. “Oh,” he says, and looks down. “Well, then. I will see you later tonight...or perhaps not.”

Shiro hums in vague assent, and does not turn to look as Keith leaves the room, and goes where Shiro cannot follow.

*

Some time later, Shiro sits on a garden bench lackadaisically sipping champagne as a guise for watching Keith on the other side of the fountain. Keith is also drinking champagne, and to Shiro’s bewilderment, the unribboned guests avoid him like the plague. They look at him, yes, but give him a wide berth, and walk the other way when Keith sees them and starts forward. As far as Shiro can tell, this has been happening all night.

“No one seems keen to rise to the bait you’ve set out, hm?”

Shiro looks to the man seated at the other end of the bench, who is none other than Lord Lotor Sinclair, son and heir of Zarkon, one of the most ancient vampire lords alive and ruler of the vampires of Paris...rivaled only by Lord Alfor, father of the woman who sits beside Shiro and ruler of London’s vampires. Alfor’s daughter and Shiro’s dearest friend among his own kind, Lady Allura, has an arm unsubtly wrapped around Lord Lotor’s slim waist, and the two of them look at Shiro with matching expressions of coy amusement.

Shiro eyes them, and takes a dainty sip. “I’m certain I don’t know what you mean.”

“How can it be possible for two people to be so terribly dense?” Lady Allura murmurs, a curl of silver hair falling from her loose French twist as she shakes her head. “Look at him, Shiro – ah, wait. You have been doing that since you arrived.”

“Quite like a vulture, if you ask me,” Lotor adds under his breath.

“I didn’t,” Shiro retorts, hand tightening around the glass.

Allura pats his knee. “You’re going to break that, darling.”

“I have to watch him,” Shiro protests. “He is trusting me to make certain he does not come to harm tonight. I cannot fail him in that.”

“As if you wouldn’t smell the first whiff of his fear or discomfort even from this distance,” Lotor says. “Besides, no one is going to even breathe on him, much less feed from him.”

“But he is wearing the red ribbon,” Shiro growls. “That is what it is for.”

Allura sighs. “Listen to me.” It isn’t a question; out of the three of them, she is the eldest, and therefore most powerful. They listen. “Shiro; my dear, foolish Shiro; it would not matter if Keith wore red ribbons on his neck, his wrists, his ankles, nor wrapped himself up in them head to toe. It would be quite like if Lotor here wore a red ribbon to one of these soirées.” Her hand moves from Shiro’s knee to Lotor’s thigh, and squeezes. Lotor’s lips quirk, revealing a flash of fang. “No one would approach him – they would never dare.”

Shiro’s jaw works. “That is different,” he mutters, “and you know it.”

“How is it different?” Allura asks archly. “Because he is human?”

“You are both dangerous vampire lords,” Shiro mutters, “and more than capable of defending yourself against others of our kind. But Keith, resourceful though he may be...what? What is it, why are the two of you looking at each other like that?!”

Allura rolls her eyes, and Lotor studies his claws, filed to sharp but neat points. “Didn’t you hear about the incident at the docks last month?”

Shiro’s eyes narrow. “The incident?”

“Mm, no, of course you didn’t hear,” Lotor hums. “Vampire by the name of Rolo, one of Sendak’s, approached your loyal little steward near Cadogan Pier. He had it in his head that he would threaten Keith to get information on your business in Birmingham, I believe –”

Allura discretely removes Shiro’s champagne glass from his hand – it is splintering, slowly crushed by his right hand’s monstrous strength and sharper claws which threaten to pierce through his glove. Champagne runs down the stem in rolling golden drops. “I am not picking glass shards out of your palm again,” she hisses. “Control yourself.”

“Where is this Rolo?” Shiro demands, unable to keep the growl out of his voice, his entire right arm rippling with uncoiling power under his coat.

Lotor holds up a hand. “I was not done. I do not think you need to worry about him bothering Keith again – he sent a rather clear message, what with stabbing Rolo’s eye out with a luxite knife. I would say I am surprised you allow him to carry such a weapon, but I think you would let him hang crucifixes in every room of this house if he so wished.”

“Crucifixes do not harm vampires,” Shiro mutters defensively.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” Allura sighs. “And it would be a tawdry decor choice, anyway.”

“Wait,” Shiro says, his mind catching up to Lotor’s words, “Keith stabbed a vampire in the eye? How – what?”

Lotor sniffs. “Lord Shirogane, really, your fondness for him blinds you, if you’ll pardon the pun. He is awfully dangerous, in his own right.”

“Not to you,” Allura adds, “for it’s quite obvious he would defend you to the death –”

“And I, him,” Shiro says, without meaning to.

“That is precisely our point!” Allura exclaims. “He may have been but a little waif of a thing when he first made your acquaintance, but even then he was not helpless – you told me yourself that you suspect he was one of the Ripper’s first victims, and one of the precious few who got away. At the very least, he has the rare gift of resisting a thrall at least to some degree, or his escape would not have been possible. He can handle himself. I believe everyone here knows that, except for you.”

“Oh, he knows it,” Lotor says. “But he refuses to admit the real reason why he won’t let his pretty Keith out of his sight.”

“You’re wrong,” Shiro snaps, bristling at anyone calling Keith pretty, even though he absolutely is. “We are not like you two.”

“No, you really aren’t,” Lotor chuckles.

Allura elbows him in the ribs none too gently. “What my dear husband means,” she says sweetly, “is that you and Keith may not be mates yet, but you might as well be.”

Shiro shakes his head firmly, a lump in his throat. “No matter my feelings on the subject, that is not how Keith thinks of me. He was hardly on the cusp of adolescence when we first met. If anything, he must see me as a brother, or – or even a father figure.” He wrinkles his nose and picks at the loose thread of his coat. Again, Allura stills his hand.

“You are making assumptions,” she says gently. “Humans are often surprising, you know. I don’t believe he treats you like one would a sibling or father, nor ever has. You were turned young, after all, as young as I. Not even thirty.” She smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. It is both a blessing and a curse to be forever twenty-eight.

“In any event, I don’t see why the presence of, ah, familial bonds would dissuade a vampire,” Lotor adds. “After all, we call the ones who turn us our sires, and plenty of sires carry on intimate relations with their so-called progeny. Bit sick, if you think about it, but that doesn’t stop anyone.”

Shiro scowls at him with as much vitriol as he can muster.

“Oh, would you look at that, someone worked up the courage to take a bite,” Lotor drawls, and laughs as Shiro’s head jerks around to look, lightning-fast. There’s no one there. Keith stands ever alone, drinking champagne, red ribbon shining in the moonlight. Lotor can be such a bastard.

Allura doesn’t even come to his rescue. She just raises her eyebrows and says, “Regardless, you should drink something other than the champagne, dear. You’re looking peckish.”

“I was going to say ravenous, but as usual my beautiful wife is the kinder one,” Lotor says. “Dark circles are not a good look for you, Lord Shirogane.”

Shiro does not bare his fangs at Lotor, but it is a near thing. Allura leans closer, and cups his cheek. “Oh, Shiro...when was the last time you fed? You’re cold as the Thames in November.”

Shiro turns his face away. “There is no need to worry. I have simply been busy, and I am not in the mood for a thrall tonight.”

Lotor hums and leans forward. “Ah, is it one of those nights, then?” Under his high collar, Shiro knows his neck is littered with dozens of bite marks, and there are hundreds more that healed long ago. He and Allura are a little unorthodox, as it is generally taboo for vampires to feed on each other, though Shiro understands the appeal. It does not sate their hunger long-term, but Lotor’s case is a unique one – he is a dhampir, half vampire, half human, and his blood is more human than vampire. Allura is a lucky woman.

Still, he isn’t in the mood for that, either.

“No,” he says shortly. “Thank you, but no.”

Allura tilts her head at him. “Are you just going to sit here and waste away, then?”

Shiro slouches. “Perhaps.”

“Suit yourself.” Allura stands in an abrupt flurry of pink taffeta. “Lotor, darling, just because he decides to spend the night moping does not mean we must join him. In fact, I think we ought to retire to the parlor, bring a few of the prettiest red ribbons with us, hmm?”

“As always, your wish is my command, mademoiselle,” Lotor purrs, and rises with her, her hand cradling the crook of his elbow. “Shame, Lord Shirogane – we used to have such fun together. Alas, au revoir.”

Before they can walk away, however, Shiro stops Allura with a hand on her wrist. She turns, eyes narrow, pupils slitted – she has shifted with shocking ease from polite to predatory, lest anyone forget she is the daughter and heir of London’s vampire king. Shiro lets go. She waits, impatiently.

“Can you approach him?” he asks her, and her impatience melts away into surprise. “Keith, I mean. He just – he looks so alone.”

“And whose fault is that?” Allura retorts.

The three of them look at Keith, who is idling now beside the steps back up to the house, arms folded, shoulders slumped. Passing vampires look away, and passing thralls eye him with wariness.

“I think he was waiting for someone,” Shiro says, “but they have not yet arrived…” With any luck, they never will, he thinks, and is immediately ashamed of himself.

“A sorry lot for a red ribbon,” Lotor murmurs sympathetically. “Though I would bet my father’s crown that the person he’s waiting for is already here, and being a fool, at this very moment!”

“Please,” Shiro wheedles, ignoring Lotor. “I will give you as many cratefuls as you like of those silk fans you adore so much, anything you wish, I swear it.”

“Bribery? I am shocked.” But Allura sighs, says, “You owe me,” and marches off towards Keith.

Shiro and Lotor take cover behind one of the stone lions guarding the stone steps. Lotor nudges him. “You know,” he says, “you could always just bite him without fucking him. That is a possibility.”

Shiro looks at him askance. “Who are you and what have you done with Lotor Sinclair?”

“Ha, ha.” Lotor lifts his chin. “I was only trying to offer some sound advice.”

Shiro is quiet a moment, and looks back to Allura, who has reached Keith and stands before him at a polite distance. Keith’s face breaks into a smile, which falls too quickly, and the murmuring of the other guests steadily grows in volume the longer they talk.

“I do not even understand why Keith would want to wear the red ribbon,” Shiro whispers. “I have known him ten years, and not once has he ever so much as expressed an interest in...that.”

“Being a thrall?” Lotor supplies helpfully. “My, my. You’re really so gone for him that you cannot even bear to say it, hm?”

Shiro, as he so often has, privately counsels himself that to rip out Lotor’s throat would be an awful insult to Allura, and a waste of a good evening coat.

“Do you think it so impossible that he would choose thralldom, of his own free will, for a single night of entertainment?” Lotor adds, quieter. “He was the genius behind the ribbons system, yes? Which means, he was thinking of it, at least considering it.”

“He was thinking of not getting bitten or bloody hypnotized against his will,” Shiro hisses.

“Not anymore, apparently,” Lotor says, and nods. “Look.”

Allura has gotten closer to Keith when they were distracted, and leans in now to the crook of his neck, cradling Keith’s jaw in her hand as she bites. Shiro trusts Allura to the ends of the earth and back, but his own blood still fills his mouth as he bites down on his tongue, just from the sight of Allura feeding on Keith.

Lotor places a hesitant hand on his forearm. “Shiro. Good Lord, pull yourself together. Are you going to behave, or am I going to have to break your legs before you attack my wife?”

Shiro’s reply is more growl than English. Lotor does not let go of him until Allura lets go of Keith, stepping back and wiping her mouth with a convenient handkerchief. Allura’s venom is potent, but so is her healing agent (when she wishes it to be), so it is unsurprising that the punctures on Keith’s neck are already closing up. This hardly matters when Shiro can see, and more critically, smell, the blood dripping down his throat like the champagne from the shattered glass.

Keith’s blood sings, and he swears the song is for him.

Lotor grabs him with both hands, claws caging him in, and holds him fast, his expression grave and teeth sharp. The older vampire is stronger, but even so Shiro can tell it takes real effort for him to keep him in place. “Find a proper meal, and soon,” Lotor warns. “This pining is not worth reverting to a bloodthirsty beast like the Ripper and doing something you will regret.”

“Release me,” Shiro hisses, and he does bare his fangs then, polite society be damned.

Warily, Lotor does, pupils slitted.

“I will not hurt Keith,” Shiro murmurs, drawing in a deep breath of the cool night air to calm himself. It tastes like desire, like the heat of so many bodies. “I can control my hunger; it controlled me for long enough, but that time is behind me.”

“Do you think that is what lions say to their cubs before a famine?” Lotor asks, gaze lifting to the stone lion above them.

“Lions do not say anything,” Shiro retorts, and stalks off, holding his right arm close to his body.

*

He does not stay in the garden to see who else will be encouraged to approach Keith after Allura cleared the way. He may be able to control his hunger, but his fury is another beast entirely – and it is not one he wants Keith to witness.

*

Shiro has managed to make himself rather tipsy by the time he retreats to the parlor – the back parlor, not the front parlor, for although both have become dens of debauchery by now, the back parlor has more agreeable paintings, and easier access to the stairs should he require a hasty exit.

Passing through the front parlor, it is not long before he rediscovers Lotor and Allura, who are sprawled out in the center of the room over the burgundy sofa and white ottomans like an odalisque portrait.

Allura’s head is thrown back and hair unpinned, tumbling over the back of the sofa in silver waves as a thrall’s head works where the silver continues at the join of her thighs. Her mouth is streaked in scarlet, like messy rouge, and the streaks extend in smudged fingerprints over her collarbones and the shining, burnished-copper-curve of her breast, half-corseted, the ribbed white fabric irreparably stained.

It is no wonder she and Keith get along, Shiro thinks wryly. Always ruining their clothing.

Lotor leans over from his prone position to kiss her slack mouth, and she wraps a slim but strong arm around his shoulders, claws digging into his neck, where fresh punctures ooze dark red dhampir blood. The thrall beside Lotor is well into the throes of venom, and crawls into Lotor’s lap with needy noises, nuzzling soft and docile at his jaw to get his attention.

It’s the one named Griffin, Shiro notes with mild amusement. Blood soaks his red ribbon, drips down over pale freckled skin, and it is not long before Lotor gives in to his pathetic begging and briefly breaks Allura’s languid kiss to bite him anew, the sound of it loud and wet.

Others lie about the room in various stages of undress and arousal – in the armchair, a lithe young vampire who goes by Rose by day, Ezor by night, straddles the broad thighs of a dock worker named Zethrid, whose hands, calloused by years of tying rigging and hauling cargo, frame Ezor’s wide hips with obvious reverence as they kiss and grind against each other.

Zethrid’s ribbon is black; they are regulars here, and with every year, the lines in Zethrid’s face deepen, and the silver streak in her dark hair widens, and Shiro wonders if the day will come when Ezor stops that silver in its tracks, or if they have already discussed it, and decided they will let nature run its course.

Shiro tears himself away. It is dangerous to linger here. His nostrils are flared and his once-slow pulse is climbing, flooding him with the adrenaline of the hunt. But this is a mere masquerade, a pantomime of those old hunting grounds.

It is safer here, both for the humans and the vampires. The humans come of their own free will and the vampires do not fear human retribution. The human leaders of London know what goes on at these ‘blood balls,’ but they have not intervened since the ribbon system was popularly adopted, and made public. It is a good system. Yet, at the moment, Shiro hates it a little.

It is not until he steps into the back parlor that he realizes he had been following a scent, one he was not even fully aware of, because it is a scent as familiar to him as the scents of his own home. It is one of the scents of his own home.

It is Keith, who stands in the far corner below a painting of a snarling tiger amid wildfire, rendered in the messy vibrant strokes of an impressionist’s brush, framed in gold. It is one of Shiro’s favorites. Keith is staring up at it, both vacant and puzzled. He is blocking the stairs. Shiro steels himself.

“Keith,” Shiro calls, softly, unsure if Keith will even hear him over the din of other guests, unsure if he wants him to hear at all.

But Keith looks up at once, as if his hearing is as inhuman as Shiro’s, and his expression shifts from confused to delighted.

Keith looked drunk from afar, but as Shiro approaches him, he realizes the situation is far more dire than anticipated. Most of the drinks at these events are carefully prepared spirits with quite high alcohol content meant for vampires, not humans, to consume.

The humans have drinks of their own, if they wish, but Keith has not been drinking those – willfully, for he is well aware of the difference – and his faster human metabolism is suffering. His knees wobble and he lurches towards Shiro with a lopsided grin, face flushed and champagne glass dangling from his fingers.

“Shirooo,” Keith slurs, and stumble-steps right into Shiro’s space. Shiro glances around wildly, but they are in a semi-secluded corner of the parlor, and everyone else is either pretending not to notice them, or otherwise too preoccupied to be aware of their surroundings at all.

Shiro’s gaze snags on the couple in the opposite corner, a slim human in a blue suit he recognizes as a flighty merchant’s son named Lance Espinosa, crushed against the wood paneling by a large man in gold, a well-off gentleman from Chelsea who Shiro knows only as Mr. H., and whose hunger for Mr. Espinosa pours off of him in warning waves that keep the others at bay despite the welcoming scarlet strip of satin over Mr. Espinosa’s brown throat. H’s fangs catch and sink deep into offered flesh and Mr. Espinosa’s high, greedy moan echoes in Shiro’s head as the venom hits his bloodstream.

Keith’s hands cling to the front of his evening coat. Shiro looks down at him and does not inhale, for he knows Keith will smell divine, as he always does. In his peripherals, Mr. H forces Mr. Espinosa’s lanky legs apart and seizes his hips.

Keith blinks up at Shiro, slow and petulant. “Everyone is ignoring me,” he says. “No one’s even asked.”

Shiro swallows, hoping his relief does not show on his face. “Did Lady Allura not approach you, earlier?”

Keith hesitates, and touches his neck. Shiro is privately pleased to note that the punctures are fully healed, fully gone. “She jus’ did that because she pitied me...and it was barely a scratch, we mostly jus’ talked.” He looks down, chewing his lip. “Even you ignored me…”

“No,” Shiro says, and Keith looks up, a line between his brows. “No. I’ve been – I was watching over you, like you asked. Making certain you were safe.”

Keith’s lips part. “Is that why nobody else wants to come near me?” His hands curl into fists where he still grips Shiro’s clothing. “Because they think I’m yours?”

He practically spits the word, like something filthy, and utterly unwanted. Shiro winces, and pushes Keith away, holds him at arms’ length. Keith goes, eyes dull and arms falling limp at his sides. “You do not belong to me,” Shiro says, with embarrassing difficulty – but he means it, or at least means to mean it. “They ought to know that.”

Unexpectedly, Keith’s face crumples. “Then – then why...does nobody want me?” He glances up, frantic, and Shiro is alarmed on a visceral level when he sees the gathering shine in Keith’s wide eyes.

In the decade he has lived with Keith, he has never seen him cry, not once, not even when he first arrived and Shiro had to sew up the gaping wound on his neck, now little more than a faint, raised silver-pink line. Keith had bitten his lower lip ‘til it turned white, squeezed his eyes shut, and held still without a single complaint, much less a sob.

But now, drunk and swaying in the shadows of a blood ball, the tears dribble almost angrily down Keith’s cheeks as he hiccups, “There’s something wrong with me, isn’t there? What is it? Is it my scent? Or jus’ my – my face?” He snorts, and scrubs a hand over his eyes. “Because, because there must be something, or else you would have bitten me a long time ago, and –”

Shiro seizes him, covers Keith’s mouth with a gloved hand. Keith slumps into the wall, staring up at him. His tears soak through white silk. “There is nothing wrong with you,” Shiro whispers, low and fierce. “I have not – done that, to you, because you are my friend, Keith. You are like family to me. I would not ruin that in a bout of ill-timed hunger.”

Keith’s eyes dart back and forth. His breath is hot on Shiro’s palm. “You – you would not ruin anything, sir,” Keith whispers back, muffled, shaky. Shiro lifts his palm enough for Keith to speak; his lips move against it. “But – do not lie to me. You are a vampire – do you find me tempting, like this, or do I possess some fatal flaw that makes my blood appealing only to those who have no other option?”

Shiro inhales, presses closer despite his best intentions. He is hungry...so, so hungry, and not just for blood. It makes it more difficult to lie, to Keith or to himself. “Keith...of all the humans in this city, in the entirety of the empire, you are the only one I find tempting,” he murmurs.

Keith’s breath hitches, hard. His pupils dilate. “Do not lie to me,” he repeats, this time pleading, shaky. “You have not fed, you –”

“I do not want any of them,” Shiro admits, stroking Keith’s hair back from his face. “And I will not take what is not offered. You taught me that best.”

Shiro can hear the way Keith’s heart pounds tenfold faster at that, but he is still unprepared for Keith to lean his head back against the wall, and expose the red ribbon over his pale, unmarked throat. “I’m offering,” Keith breathes.

It’s instinct when Shiro covers Keith’s display with the bulk of his own body, shielding his bared neck from the rest of the room. “You’re drunk,” Shiro hisses. “Terribly, utterly drunk.”

Keith licks his lips. “And you’re hungry.”

Shiro huffs at him. Then he leans in, with agonizing slowness, and touches his lips to Keith’s neck, just above the ribbon. Keith freezes, and when Shiro closes his eyes, and listens, Keith’s mind is no longer a dark, hidden well, but a radiant pool of sunlight, flickering brighter as Shiro kisses his warm skin, just once, and feels Keith’s pulse beat just below the surface.

Please, the burning ember of Keith’s mind chants, please, yes, you.

It is so loud, so bright, that Shiro wonders how he never heard it before. But now that he has, there is no returning from it.

A lesser vampire in his situation would have been unable to resist a bite, but Shiro is not a lesser vampire. He is not that creature in the alley, and Keith – Keith is everything, to him.

Delicately, he opens his mouth, and hooks the tips of his fangs under the red ribbon, and yanks , breaking the clasp clean off . Keith’s stuttered gasp follows the soft thump of the ripped red ribbon as it falls to the floor at Keith’s feet, between them. Where it belongs, Shiro thinks.

Keith looks down at it, dazed, back up at Shiro, then groans, “I think – I am going to vomit, sir.”

“Oh, dear,” Shiro sighs at him, and really, it is quite remarkable how Keith can singlehandedly cause Shiro to one moment want nothing more in this world or the next than to take Keith apart with his hands and mouth ‘til he begs for more, yet in the very next moment want to scoop Keith up in the largest and softest blanket he can find and dote on him at his heart’s content.

Lotor, he thinks darkly, might be onto something when it comes to strange vampiric proclivities.

He does not scoop Keith up, however, for he thinks the human’s pride has been wounded enough, tonight. Instead, Shiro kicks the offending red ribbon under a nearby settee and herds Keith along the room’s perimeter, avoiding the other guests as much as possible and letting out a small sigh of relief when they reach the stairs.

It is, of course, right then when Keith’s legs give out from under him. Keith braces himself weakly against the bannister, spine buckling as he heaves, though nothing comes up. Shiro rubs his back and wraps an arm around his waist. “Come, I have you,” Shiro promises. “Just a little further –”

Keith collapses, pressing a clammy hand to his forehead and mumbling, “The world is spinning like a bloody top...ugh, hell –”

“This is what happens when you drink vampire liqueur,” Shiro informs him, keeping him steady. Others in the parlor are starting to notice, and Shiro is struck by the strange urge to keep Keith out of sight – not because he is displaying his neck, but because he is...he is vulnerable.

Because the truth is, maybe Keith has never needed Shiro as much as Shiro needed him, but Shiro wants him to, he wants – to be needed, by Keith, for Keith. He wants that, very much.

“Oh, fuck off,” Keith croaks. “Just – leave me here, it’s no use, I can sleep in the pantry – ”

“No, you will not.” Shiro hauls him up, not just upright, but slings Keith over his shoulder, so the human’s head and arms flop down over Shiro’s back, his legs wrapping awkwardly around Shiro’s waist, clinging.

“Sh – iro?” Keith stammers, his heart pounding faster, faster, against Shiro’s chest.

In hindsight, this was not a good position to carry him in, for the strip of his white throat is too close to Shiro’s face, well within range if he were to simply lean forward, nose under Keith’s slack jaw, and – no. Shiro holds him tighter and starts up the stairs, swaying a little himself, for alas, neither of them are sober. But he is determined, and by some miracle, they make it to the first landing, and then the second, and because he is a creature of habit, Shiro finds himself in his own bedroom, and rolls gracelessly into bed with Keith.

He does not crush Keith, but it is a near thing. The human squirms weakly against his front, pinned under Shiro’s right arm, which is heavier than his left. “Wrong bed,” Keith protests, tugging at Shiro’s wrist, to no avail. “I can’t – can’t be here, this is your –”

Shiro shifts further onto his side, so that Keith is half-freed, but stopped short when Shiro nuzzles under his jaw, enjoying the ability to rub his nose and lips over smooth skin without the ribbon interrupting. Keith’s breath hitches and his head lolls back, lashes fluttering when Shiro exhales over the old scar. “Do you need to be invited in?” Shiro asks, mocking.

Keith’s laughter is strangled. “Awful,” he wheezes. “That was – awful…”

“You have my invitation,” Shiro murmurs, “formally.”

Keith’s pulse leaps under his lips. “This doesn’t feel very formal,” he croaks. “But, this is a very soft bed, so — invitation accepted, sir.”

Shiro lets his eyes fall shut, head resting on the pillows beside Keith’s neck, its proximity somehow comforting. “Why did you wear the red ribbon?”

Keith’s throat works; Shiro can see it when he cracks his eyes open, and hear the skip in Keith’s heartbeat, but he doesn’t reply. He just shakes his head, squeezes his eyes shut like he’s in pain. Shiro’s right hand clasps Keith’s hip. Keith, without opening his eyes, reaches down and slips Shiro’s glove off. It is easy, almost too easy, to do so.

The hand beneath is cursed, wicked, infernal, and so on and so forth. It is vampiric magic, woven for Shiro by King Alfor himself after he lost the arm two centuries ago. Like all vampiric magic, it takes things. It leeches heat from flesh, rends flesh from bone, steals souls from bodies. But Keith slips his fingers into the shadowy hand’s grasp without fear, his pinky curling around a curved black claw.

Shiro repeats the question, and squeezes Keith’s hand.

Keith’s eyes open, hazy, and he stares at the dark canopy over Shiro’s bed. “You really want to know?” he asks.

“Yes,” Shiro rumbles, and curls closer to him. Though his skin must feel unpleasantly lukewarm, Keith does not push him away.

Keith chews his lip. “I wished to know what it is like,” he admits. “To be thralled, enthralled…” He trails off into silence.

Shiro shuffles upright, slow to react, and peers down at him. “But you were already…”

“No, the Ripper’s thrall was different,” Keith sighs. “There was – sheer violence, in that. Raw hunger and anger and domination and not – not much else.”

Shiro’s right hand enfolds Keith’s hand completely, thumb stroking over his knuckles. “But you resisted it. You escaped – how?”

Keith swallows. “You use your thrall to feed, to survive. Whatever I did...that was to survive, too. There is a – a balance, I think. I just – tipped it.”

Shiro hums, leaning on his left elbow, and brushes Keith’s hair back from his face. “So why would you want to go through that again?”

Keith frowns at him. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” he mumbles, and curls away, from Shiro and his touch. The rejection stings, but Shiro is tipsy, and fatigued in his hunger, so he does not fight it, and just lays down again.

“I want to understand,” Shiro murmurs, after he thinks Keith has fallen asleep, based on the slowing pound of his pulse. “If you’ll let me.”

But Keith is not asleep. Just... calm, somehow, even though he is lying in bed with his back to a three-century-old vampire lord. His voice is soft when he says, “Shiro, I wanted you to thrall me.”

Shiro’s fangs click against each other as his jaw snaps shut in shock.

Keith sighs, resigned. “I thought, maybe, if I wore the red ribbon, you would approach me. I hoped you would. And if not you, then, then at least someone, but –”

Shiro bridges the gap between them, fits himself to the curve of Keith’s back, and feels the human’s body lock up, flush hotter. “No,” Shiro says, pressing his lips between Keith’s shoulder blades through his thin white shirt. “I would let none of them thrall you, and they know it.” His breath ghosts over the fabric, wishing it was not there. “So perhaps you ought to find a less selfish vampire lord.”

Keith shivers in his embrace. “Maybe I desire your selfishness,” he counters. “Did that ever occur to you, sir?”

Shiro needs a moment.

Keith does not give it to him. Instead, he twists around, stays close but faces Shiro so he cannot hide any longer. “Do you want to?” he whispers. “I want you to. I have felt – brushes of your thrall before, I think, like whispers through my thoughts, or – or kisses.” He tips his head up, beseeching, earnest. “They do not feel like his, like the Ripper, not at all. And I know, for many, it feels – good.” He leans closer. His eyes are darkly luminous, moonlight on water. “For both parties.”

Shiro takes in the scent of him, helpless, and knows Keith must see his unsteady inhale. He smells of the countryside Shiro grew up in, of orchards with crisp red apples as sweet as ambrosia. He smells of the fertile earth and smooth black pebbles of freshwater streams tumbling through the hills, cold and clear and bright. He smells of creaking haylofts, of old books, of wet ink, and sweat and blood and life; he smells like all the warm, golden, glowing things that Shiro can only see now in dreams.

“Shiro,” Keith whispers, an uncertain note creeping into his voice. “Please – please say something.”

“I am going to kiss you, now,” Shiro informs him, and cups Keith’s flushed-red cheek in his clawed right hand, and kisses him.

He kisses Keith the way he plans to bite him – deep, firm, but careful, licking into Keith’s pliant mouth and coaxing his lips apart, humming low and pleased when Keith kisses back, clumsy but eager. He tastes like alcohol and lust, like his favorite forbidden things.

Shiro rubs his thumb over Keith’s cheekbone, feels the heat of rising blood. “Good boy,” he sighs into Keith’s mouth, and Keith moans, not an urgent sound, but drawn-out, blissful. It is a sound Shiro has often imagined him making, but never imagined he would truly hear, as is the sensation of Keith’s mouth on his, as soft and yielding as it is hard and greedy.

Keith is a blessed tangle of charming, wondrous contradictions, and Shiro never stood a chance.

It is so lovely to kiss Keith that Shiro forgets he has fangs, until one slices Keith’s lip open, and hot blood trickles onto Shiro’s tongue. Shiro jerks away with a groan, tonguing the tip of his fang, tasting it, and even a hint is – so much. Too much. It burns and warms his throat in equal measure, copper straight from the forge.

Keith watches, eyes wide. His lip is still cut, still bloodied. He makes a high, startled noise when Shiro leans in again, and licks the wound shut. It takes every ounce of patience Shiro has not to bite him properly, and Keith looks crestfallen when he pulls away.

“Wait – I wanted –” Shiro covers his mouth with a single finger and Keith’s brows draw together like a little angry black caterpillar.

“I know,” Shiro murmurs. “But you had too much to drink, and I will not thrall you in such a state, not ‘til you have had a chance to think with a clear head. Patience.”

“And you have not drunk enough,” Keith huffs, pushing his hand away to snuggle up to Shiro’s chest. “Why are you such a stubborn man?”

“Pot, kettle,” Shiro yawns, and cards his fingers through Keith’s long, black hair. He likes Keith like this; lazy and soft, so unreserved in his words and touches. In the darkness, Shiro can see his face in greater clarity, though he knows that to Keith, his own face must be shrouded in shadow, a mere silhouette with golden eyes and silver hair.

The velvet curtains over the bedroom windows are too heavy to let any sunshine in – that is rather the point – but Shiro can feel the languorous pull of dawn as his eyelids grow ever heavier. “Sleep, now.”

“I’m not tired,” Keith protests, yawning even as he says it. Shiro snorts, tugs gently on his hair just once, and Keith burrows closer in retaliation. “Very well,” he whispers, barely audible, “but you must – mm, you must promise me, that when we awake, you will –”

“Yes,” Shiro murmurs. “I promise. I will take care of you, Keith. Always, always.”

He means it. If Keith is giving him the chance to prove himself in this, then he will do all he can to fulfill that promise, a hundred times over.

Keith closes his eyes fully, and sure enough, it does not take long for the exhausted little human to drift off into slumber. Shiro stays still, watching the way his pulse beats in his throat for a while longer, mesmerized and lulled, bit by bit, into sweet nothing.

*

Shiro has heard of this happening before, but has never been so unfortunate – or fortunate, depending on one’s perspective – to experience it until now. To be fair, he has also not slept with Keith in his bed until now, either.

He wakes up with his fangs buried in Keith’s neck, and Keith groaning awake with him, confused at first, then shocked, then – laughing. Shiro is biting Keith’s neck with fangs sharper than straight-razors, and Keith is laughing at him.

“Oh, heavens,” Keith cackles, pawing blindly at Shiro, “this is – weren’t you the one preaching patience?”

Shiro pulls back at once, carefully, but not carefully enough to stop the sloppy gush of scarlet over Keith’s neck as his fangs pop free. Keith stops laughing, and pales, shuddering when Shiro leans back in to lick as he did with Keith’s lips, this time not to close the punctures, but to lap up the spilled blood.

“Apologies,” Shiro murmurs, his voice thick and wet as he swallows, dizzy with the sweet heat on his tongue. “I was hungrier than I thought, and you are tempting even when I am not conscious, it seems.”

Keith is staring at him, his face ashen, neck bloodied. Shiro did not bite him anywhere particularly dangerous, thankfully – the bite is at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, over the lean muscle there. It continues to bleed, and Keith lifts a shaky hand to it, presses his palm over the bite and stares at the blood trickling slow through his fingers.

Shiro watches him. “Have you changed your mind?” he asks. “You may, of course, at any time, especially after such a rude awakening –”

Keith shakes his head slowly. “It doesn’t hurt,” he murmurs, distracted, “just, just aches, stings, a little. Why doesn’t it hurt?”

Shiro exhales. “They are very sharp teeth. Sharper than needles. A bite is meant to be clean, quick. Not messy and torturous. And I have not even used my venom on you, yet.” Shiro curls his fingers around Keith’s wrist, lifting his bloodied fingers to his mouth. He takes his time sucking each digit clean as Keith watches, pupils blown, body rousing from sleepy to needy with impressive haste.

Blood on its own does not have a strong taste, it is mostly just warm and metallic with impressions of emotion heightened by physical pleasure or pain, but Keith’s is sweet as honey all on its own, and he marvels at this.

Keith’s fingers curl within his mouth, and a fingertip is pricked open on a curved fang; Shiro licks the beaded blood up along with the rest of it. Keith’s breath is shallow. “You don’t – don’t have to do that,” Keith manages.

“As if I would waste any of this,” Shiro says when he has cleaned the blood away to his satisfaction. He kisses the tip of Keith’s thumb.

Keith snatches his hand back, and Shiro pauses. “I mean –” Keith sets his jaw. “I mean to say, if you wish to thrall me, but only wish to feed from me, that is – alright. There is no need to, ah...” He gestures loosely.

Shiro’s brows lift. “No need to ‘ah’?” he echoes lightly.

But Keith does not respond in kind to his teasing, this time. He looks embarrassed. “Do not mock me,” he mutters. “You are three hundred years old, I know you are – experienced.”

“Two hundred and ninety-nine,” Shiro corrects. “And I was only five years older than you when I was turned, so, that’s — something?”

Keith gives him a flat look. “You are old either way,” he snaps. Shiro pouts at him. “And you have —” He hunches his shoulders. “Maybe it is best that you just thrall and feed from me and be done with it, satisfy our curiosity and leave it at that. I have no wish to disappoint you or make a fool of myself.” He avoids Shiro’s eyes, ducking his head.

Shiro makes a low sound. “There is no way you could possibly disappoint me in this, Keith,” he murmurs, dragging his fingertips along Keith’s jaw. “No matter what we do, or do not do.”

“I don’t know what I am doing,” Keith whispers. “Just that I — I want you.” He gulps, looking up at Shiro with dazed determination. Shiro has forgotten many things, but he knows he will not forget Keith’s words in these moments, no matter how long he is destined to wander this earth.

“That is enough,” Shiro tells him. “That is all that is needed, Keith.”

“Do you know what to do?” Keith asks, shy.

Shiro kisses him then, slow and sweet, lets his tongue dip only a little past Keith’s lips, letting him taste himself. Keith is good at kissing. Shiro knew he would be.

“Yes, I do,” he murmurs. A tremor goes through them both. “Do you want me to show you?”

Keith licks his own lips, reddened from kisses and blood. “Can you — may I ask a question, first?”

“Whatever you like.” Shiro hovers over him, unable to stop looking, touching.

Keith’s thick black lashes tremble over his cheekbones as he closes his eyes. “Will I — be able to do anything at all, under your thrall?”

Shiro strokes his cheek again and this time Keith leans into it. “Yes,” he says. “It is complicated to describe, but it will not be a removal of will, nor a total imposition of my will over yours. More of a...suggestion of my will. You can follow it, or not...but you will want to follow it. It will feel good to follow it.” Keith’s hot breath feathers across his fingers. “Very good.”

“I have heard vampires can see into human minds, see our desires,” Keith whispers. “Is that true?”

“It goes both ways,” Shiro chuckles, and kisses Keith’s brow. “Sometimes.”

Keith eyes flick open, questioning.

Shiro regards him, patient and fond, pushing aside the hunger gnawing again within him. It is secondary, when Keith is involved. “There are different sorts of thralls,” he murmurs. “There are the kinds like the Ripper’s, meant only to subdue and ensnare. There are the kinds like the ones we use with the red ribbons, meant to enchant and coax into utter submission and pleasure.”

Shiro runs his fingertip over Keith’s parted lips, and Keith shivers. “And there are the kinds we use for those most dear to us, meant to bring both body and mind together, as one.”

Keith’s lower lip trembles. “Which are you using on me?”

“Do you truly need to ask?” Shiro rolls, arranges Keith’s body under his over the plush sheets and gazes down at him, eyes dark, fangs stained. “Which do you think — for you, who have been a loyal friend and companion for so many good years; you, who I find myself longing for in a way I have not felt since I, too, was human?”

Keith’s eyes widen. “Shiro,” he breathes, “I — I have longed for you since I first laid eyes on you.”

A shocked groan reverberates through him, and he decides in a split second that he will wait no longer, and answer no more questions until he has bitten Keith again — properly, this time. Keith cries out and claws at his back when Shiro finds a vein, a thicker one closer to the source, and slices through it like hot knives through butter. His venom follows, flooding Keith’s body, coursing through veins, arteries, capillaries, settling around his pounding heart.

Not all vampires have it, and for some it is stronger than others, but Shiro has never been so glad that he has rather potent venom than he is right then.

Keith’s clawing hands fall limp onto the bed, over his head in a position of surrender, his chest heaving and eyes rolling back. Shiro swallows in dizzy ecstasy, pulling back enough to pull the blood up through his grooved fangs, sucking over the bite hard enough to bruise it. Keith whimpers, squirming under him, spine arching and hips seeking Shiro’s.

Shiro chuckles as he pulls away, licks the bite closed just enough to stop the worst of the bleeding, but not enough to heal it fully. He likes the way it looks on Keith, like a macabre jewel on his skin. He will put more there before the night is done. Many more.

Keith stares up at him, his blinks sluggish and breath labored. Shiro settles fully atop him, and lets his claws scratch through Keith’s tousled hair, against his scalp. “Still with me?” he murmurs, just to be sure.

“Uh-huh,” Keith mumbles. “Your venom — that hurt. But — good. Mm?” His forehead wrinkles like he is trying to parse this out.

Shiro solves the puzzle for him and presses his knee between Keith’s sprawled legs. Keith grunts in surprise, mouth falling open, hips rolling uneven and frantic like he is not fully aware of what his own body is doing.

“It is a good hurt, yes,” Shiro coos, sitting back on his heels and slipping his hands under Keith so he can lift his squirming body, effortlessly, from the rumpled sheets. Keith gasps at him, then louder when Shiro sits Keith in his lap, leans against the headboard and forces Keith to straddle his thigh fully, holds him down so he cannot get away (though he only tries to get closer).

Keith’s squirming turns to desperate writhing, and he crumples to Shiro’s chest, grinding off over his flexing thigh with a red face and a hardening cock Shiro can feel plump and hot through too much fabric. “Sorry,” Keith gasps, “I don’t — I need — more, I think, ah!” His cock is twitching with the friction but it is not enough, and Shiro will not let Keith touch himself — it is a terrible sin , after all, he thinks sardonically — but Keith has not even tried to reach down between them, because he is Shiro’s good boy, and he knows it.

“Do not be sorry,” Shiro orders, and bites him on the other side of his neck, harder, as greedy as he likes. Blood spurts into his mouth, hotter than before, the sweetness blinding, rich and smooth and bright. Keith howls, goes rigid against him, and comes untouched, cock pulsing wet and hard and helpless as Shiro’s venom sears through his bloodstream anew.

Shiro holds him through it, covers the bites in kittenish licks and washes them clean with the flat of his tongue. Keith folds forward, his arms looped around Shiro’s neck, head tucked to his shoulder, his hips still rolling in stuttered jerks, the scent of his release like a breath of sea air.

Shiro runs his right hand down Keith’s slumped spine and the human trembles, moans soft at the scratch of claws through his shirt, moans louder when those claws slice through fabric like fangs through skin. His shirt hangs in ribbons; Shiro delicately tears them away until Keith sits bare-chested before him. His torso is lean, but ripples with fine musculature as he shudders, belly taut and arms flexing as he tugs Shiro closer.

Shiro kisses his throat in reply and lifts his head, leaning their faces together, brow against brow, nose to nose. Keith is panting shallowly, a side effect of the venom. His skin is splotched in pink blush, over his face and down his chest, down again over his stomach, and the thick dark hair there, leading down to where his pants no longer cover much of anything at all, wet as the fabric is.

“Beautiful,” Shiro tells him; the blush darkens. Perhaps he was wrong about Keith’s inclination for flattery. “You did so well, Keith.”

Keith blinks hazily. “Not done yet,” he protests. “You haven’t thralled me –”

“I don’t have to,” Shiro offers, rubbing Keith’s hip. “We can go slowly, try some other night if you –”

“Ten years, Shiro.” Keith scowls at him, some of the haze clearing from his eyes. He recovers from the venom incredibly fast...Shiro makes an awed mental note. “If this was you trying to scare me off, it is not working, sir.”

“It wasn’t that,” Shiro admits, a bit sheepish, “I just couldn’t help myself. You cannot say you have longed for me since the day we met and expect me to remain civil.”

Keith swallows. “Oh,” he breathes. “Well, it’s – it’s the truth. I have always found you…”

“Tempting?” Shiro chuckles. Keith snorts, and leans his head in the crook of Shiro’s neck. He pushes Shiro’s evening coat from his shoulders insistently, and Shiro suppresses more laughter – he should have known that not even two doses of vampire venom would make Keith passive. He’s glad for it. But, “That isn’t why you graced my doorstep...is it? You didn’t think I would –”

Keith huffs. “No,” he sighs. “I thought you were a decent man – and more important, a powerful one. Many vampires are benefactors of London’s many, many orphanages...they just don’t usually do it out of the goodness of their hearts.” Keith glances up. “You did, though.”

Shiro tilts his head. “How could you be certain?” he asks lightly — although Keith speaks the truth. Some have a taste for children’s blood, and most orphanages are all too happy to turn their establishment into a particularly generous patron’s personal blood bank.

Shiro has always found the practice revolting. His arrangement with St. Mary’s of Whitechapel was simple – he gave them his patronage, and they promised to use the money to make the children’s lives better not through the ‘Grace of God’ but through rather more concrete, helpful things, like food and clothing and medicine and new dormitories and better teachers.

He does recall, though, one cloudy day after his monthly meeting with the director, Prioress Sanda. As usual, she had led him through the stone halls, showed him all they had done with the donations he gave them, and listened to his suggestions for new changes.

They had just left the small chapel, where stained glass windows cast colored quilts of light over the children in the pews, and where the nuns always observed Shiro’s presence there with both surprise and unease. He often longed to tell them that there is no such thing as holy and unholy. He just is, in the same way that tigers simply are, no matter how devilish they may appear to be. Crucifixes and exorcisms are useless weapons, but he let them believe otherwise.

In the drafty hall leading back to the main dormitories, the prioress had stopped him before a lead-paned window overlooking the gray courtyard, where children played catch under the nuns’ watchful eyes.

“Lord Shirogane,” she said, in that way she always said his name, both reverent and repulsed in the same breath, “you have been very good to us, but for the sake of our children, I am afraid I must inquire as to your true intentions here, so that we might be – honest with each other.”

Shiro knew what she meant at once, for he had long-dreaded this conversation, but had regarded her coolly, and replied, “And what intentions do you speak of, my dear Sister?”

She did not want to answer this, but at length, muttered, “Few of – of your kind offer such generous support without expecting payment in return. The leadership team and I have decided that your patronage is too vital to reject, even if the price is steep, but, we pray that you will be merciful and be content with using only one of the children to feed upon –”

“Stop,” Shiro snapped, unable to hear another word. Prioress Sanda stopped, growing pale at his sharp tone. “Never make such an offer to me again,” he warned, “nor to any other ‘of my kind’ who may try to make a deal with you. Part of my patronage to St. Mary’s is to keep these children safe, and I intend to do so. How, Sister, do you think they would be safe if my teeth were in their throats?”

“I – I see,” she whispered. “I was mistaken, sir. I will not ask again.”

“No, you will not,” Shiro said. “Swear to me, on your God and your saints, that you will never make such an offer again, to me or any other. That you will keep the children safe, and not use them as bait for bribery.”

“I swear,” she said fervently. “On Christ our Redeemer and the Virgin Mary, I swear it. And I apologize, and thank you, for finding kindness within your cold and sinful heart to care for these precious Children of God. The Lord thanks you.”

Shiro suppressed a sigh and looked out the window. “How nice. Now, shall we talk more about those new grammar books I requested last we spoke?”

Shiro blinks, back to the present. He would like to think those grammar books made a difference – Keith is good at his letters and even better at his numbers, after all. One can hope.

Keith is quiet, as if he, too, is remembering. Shiro does not remember seeing him among the children as anything more than a passing face, for he had been advised by Allura long ago that it was best not to form any attachments. Those children would grow up, and age, and die, if they were not dead before that, so it was better to simply give what he could to help and not invest himself any further.

But he knows that to the children, his presence must not have gone unnoticed. It is quite difficult not to notice a two meter tall vampire gentleman with silver hair and a scarred face if he is not trying to hide.

As if he can read Shiro’s thoughts, Keith admits, “There were stories about you. That you were a monster, a bogeyman or demon who would catch us and bite us if we were naughty. I didn’t believe it. My father always said that fangs don’t make a demon, and he was right about most things. And when no one ever got bitten or snatched in the night, others said you were a guardian angel. Because of your hair, I think. And your dashing good looks.” Keith’s lips quirk. He reaches up and pushes Shiro’s silver fluff of forelock out of his eyes. “I see it.”

Shiro smiles, revealing bloodied fangs. “Really? An angel?” He does not say that he would be one, as best he could, if that was what Keith wished from him. He has a suspicion, however, that this is not Keith’s particular desire.

“Well,” Keith drawls, tapping one of his fangs like the fearless creature he is, “the demon narrative was always more popular.”

Shiro leans closer, covers his fangs to let Keith’s finger rest on his lower lip. “Did you believe it, then?”

“Clearly not, as one does not seek sanctuary with demons,” Keith murmurs, and hesitates before adding, darkly, “but we may all have our little fantasies, hm?”

Shiro inhales, sharp. “You have a shockingly wicked tongue on you. We ought to do something about that.”

Keith tips up his chin. “I’m open to suggestions, sir.”

“Are we done talking about orphanages?” Shiro asks, strained. “Because I must say, such talk does not exactly fill me with burning ardour.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Keith huffs, and kisses him. “Yes, we are quite done talking about orphanages,” he mumbles against Shiro’s mouth, “but not done talking about my tongue.”

“Oh, is that so?” Shiro nips at his lower lip, not enough to bleed, just sting. “And just what would you have me say about your tongue?”

“I was hoping for less saying, and more letting me touch you,” Keith murmurs, fumbling between them, shoving Shiro’s half-shed evening coat off the bed and sliding an unsubtle hand down his waistcoat, popping buttons as he goes.

Shiro lets him, for now, leaning back against the headboard with raised brows as Keith disrobes him. When his waistcoat is undone, and removed with a slight lift of Shiro’s shoulders, Keith falters, hesitating with his fingers on the first button of Shiro’s white undershirt. Shiro strokes his ribs, encouraging, feeling the way Keith breathes beneath his fingertips. “What is it?” he asks.

“You’re very,” Keith says roughly, “broad.”

Shiro smirks, knowing. “Broad,” he repeats.

“Large,” Keith whispers, half-hissed, like a curse, smoothing his hands down over Shiro’s chest. His nails graze Shiro’s nipples, a startling sensation, and Shiro’s breath hitches. Keith’s eyes dart up, ever perceptive. “Do you know why I never went to those bloody soirées?” he asks.

“Bloody,” Shiro giggles under his breath. Keith pinches his nipple, hard, and he falls silent, shocked and delighted by the human’s sudden boldness.

“Quiet,” Keith snaps. Shiro hums, vaguely apologetic. “I never went, because whenever I did, I always saw you, with the damned red ribbons.” His jaw works. Shiro watches, hungry in a new way. “You think it was difficult for you to see me wearing a red ribbon tonight? Well. Let me tell you how agonizing it was for me to see you fucking them for five years.”

“You watched us?” Shiro murmurs. “Hmm.”

Keith stares at him, wild and undaunted. “I watched you,” Keith snaps. “Just you.”

Shiro’s own face is flushed, now, from feeding and arousal. “And what did you see?” he whispers.

Keith’s eyes narrow. He scoots back on the bed, then climbs off the bed entirely, standing at the end of it resolutely. Under Shiro’s confused scrutiny, he slides down his ruined pants and undergarments, ignoring Shiro’s soft growl at the sight of his long, strong legs and his messy cock hanging between them, already plumping out again. Perhaps the venom has not worn off so fast, after all.

Keith curls his hand around his cock and eyes Shiro. “Unbutton it,” he says.

Shiro considers him, toys with the first button. “And if I don’t?”

“You will,” Keith says.

Shiro’s eyebrow arches. “Will, I, now.” He slides his own hand, his right hand, down to the hem of his pants. Keith grips his own cock tighter when Shiro cups the tenting fabric, and shifts his hips up into his clawed grasp. Shiro tilts his head, amused, and rubs the heel of his palm over his swollen cock leisurely through the fabric.

Keith’s desire and frustration ripples through the bedroom like a hot summer wind. “I don’t know,” Shiro muses, “this works just fine for me.”

Keith glares at him, and then pauses, eyes glinting with something dangerous. Shiro likes dangerous. “Fine,” Keith murmurs, just loud enough for him to hear, “you want to know what I saw? I saw you, touching them and calling them pretty and precious and I wanted to pin you to those ridiculous velvet sofas and kiss you until you called me that, only me, and bit me, only me, so everyone could see that you’re mine.”

Shiro’s breath stutters. Keith’s lip curls. “I wanted you to thrall me and I wanted to suck your cock and I wanted you to fuck me until I was crying for it, because I’ve never wanted these things from anyone like I want them from you, but I do, I do, so much.”

“Ah,” Shiro manages, faint, and squeezes his cock. “I see.” The fabric is soaked through. Keith’s eyes trace the movement, cock hardening in his fist. Shiro starts unbuttoning his shirt, revealing scarred flesh corded with thick muscle, and Keith’s pupils dilate.

“I wished it was you,” Shiro offers when he is halfway through. Keith swallows, something a little frantic in the motion. “But I did not want to overstep. I did not want to assume, nor to treat you with anything other than respect.” He tugs the last button free, and shrugs his shirt off. “But I would have gladly fucked you until you cried, if you asked politely.”

“Fuck,” Keith says eloquently, and practically hurls himself onto the bed. Shiro huffs out a laugh, muffled by Keith’s tongue. “Fuck, you should have,” he gasps when he pulls away, “you should, Shiro, please, thrall me now, I don’t want to wait any longer —”

“Hush,” Shiro groans, for Keith is hot and heavy in his lap, rutting his bare cock over Shiro’s bulging crotch, shoving him back up against the headboard with strength that makes Shiro both proud and lightheaded at the possibilities. “Keith —”

“Don’t hush me,” Keith retorts, “I know what I want. I trust you. Shiro, please.”

Shiro shivers. His hands lock around Keith’s hips and the human finally stops, hair hanging in his face, expression already wrecked. Shiro leans his forehead to Keith’s, and nudges forward into Keith’s mind.

It is a breathless, deafening litany of yes.

Shiro has taken many thralls, but never has he encountered a decade worth of want, not just a want to be thralled or bitten, but for himself.

Shiro jerks back, eyes wide.

Keith looks steadily at him. “Now do you understand?”

“I love you,” Shiro breathes, and kisses his gasp of surprise away into trembling moans, and further, and further, until he breaks through the golden veil of Keith’s mind.

Countless scientists and philosophers have tried and failed to explain how a thrall works with reason alone, but Shiro knows they never will. It is not reason, it is beyond that, beyond explanation or definition.

It is instinct for Keith to resist such a complete takeover of himself, as Shiro pulls Keith’s brilliant light into his own mind, into darkness and flickering cosmos. Vivid, fragmented emotions flash through Keith — it must be disorienting for him, to say the least. Shiro reaches out, tightens his hold and soothes with words that are not really words. Keith, he calls.

The falling light flares with — relief. Recognition. Shiro, Keith whispers, Takashi.

Yes, Shiro says, wrapping around him, yes. I am here.

After that, Keith falls easily, a celestial body crossing Shiro’s event horizon, a star consumed.

Hush, Shiro says, catching him. The light dims, cools, from gold to silver.

I can feel you, Keith whispers into the darkness. Everywhere.

Shiro caresses his mind, his marveling thoughts. They burn, then fade, like drifting sparks. Do I feel like the Ripper?

Keith sighs, the darkness bending, the cosmos swirling, as he nestles fully into the night. Who is the Ripper? he asks, soft and hazy.

Nobody important, Shiro promises.

You’re important, Keith says. I love you.

Shiro opens his eyes. He is still aware of Keith’s mind enmeshed with his own, cradled deep within it, and can hear every thought which whispers through it. Keith does not resist when Shiro presses him down to the bed, and looks at Shiro through half-lidded eyes, his lips parted, his heartbeat slow. “Can you hear me?” Shiro asks him, leaning over him, kissing the corner of his lips. Keith kisses back, as needy as before.

“Mhm,” Keith murmurs, without fully opening his eyes. The light in Shiro’s mind pulses, answering. Yes. Yes.

“Does this feel good?” Shiro strokes Keith’s side, runs his palm down to his ass and thighs, lifting them ever so slightly off the bed. Keith’s head falls back, a moan tossed from his lips, deliciously responsive even to that little touch. “Answer me,” Shiro adds, more stern, and feels Keith cringe in soft apology, before the light pulses again, Yes, good, more, please.

“Good boy,” Shiro murmurs, and starts to unbutton his pants. Keith’s legs spread under him. “Did I say you could do that?” Shiro remarks, casual, and is immediately rewarded with Keith closing his legs tight, toes curling in the sheets. “Mm. Good. Now,” he says, keeping his voice low, soft, “you are going to listen to me, and do as I ask, alright?”

Yes, Keith’s mind sings, eager and immediate, anything, anything you want.

“Not anything,” Shiro says, petting his hip, eyeing his cock as it stands to attention once more, “for I will be listening to you, as you listen to me, and I will hear if you are hurt or afraid, and I will stop. Do you understand?”

The light shivers. Yes, Shiro.

Shiro leans over him. “You will not be able to speak or move, now, unless I tell you to. Sounds are allowed, for I want to hear all your pretty noises. Do not hold them back.”

The light sparks and sputters mutely, and Keith lets out a strangled whimper, but none of it is at all unhappy or frightened, and when Shiro resumes unbuttoning his pants, Keith waits, his legs falling limply askew when Shiro nudges them apart. “Look at you,” Shiro says appreciatively, knowing Keith can hear every word, “beautiful, all over.”

He tilts his head and exhales over Keith’s cock, gratified when it twitches, pearly fluid dribbling from the dark, wide crown that Shiro knows would feel divine inside of him. Keith hears this thought, too. “Someday I will pin you here and ride your cock, hm?” Shiro laughs when Keith’s throat constricts with muffled gasps. “But not tonight. No, tonight, I seem to recall promising to fuck you until you cried.” Keith stares, desperately, his lashes already damp.

“First, there is the matter of this,” Shiro adds, tracing Keith’s mouth with a claw before letting it dip in, teasing over Keith’s tongue, scratching the tip ‘til it bleeds. “Suck,” Shiro orders without ever raising his voice, and Keith’s lips close around the dark claw, cheeks hollowing and eyes falling shut.

He licks at the claw earnestly, uncaring of its sharpness, and Shiro growls when he smells more blood in the air, tugging his finger away to replace it with his own tongue. Keith groans, kissing back at Shiro’s silent behest, hiccuping on tiny moans as Shiro relentlessly licks over his tongue, healing the cuts and swallowing blood and saliva alike. “Oh, sweetheart,” he murmurs as he pulls away, their mouths connected by a string of pink saliva, “you love this, don’t you?”

Keith blinks, pupils nearly swallowing up indigo irises. “Uh-huh,” he mumbles. “Mmm…”

“What do you want, my dear one?” Shiro asks.

The hold on Keith’s voice lifts. “Wanna — wanna suck your cock,” he slurs at once.

Shiro’s answering snarl is accidental, but Keith is not afraid, even then. On the contrary, his silver light burns hotter, golden once more, and he arches into Shiro’s hands like he has never felt anything better. Shiro hopes he hasn’t. He wants to give Keith the best of everything, everything in this world, and far beyond it.

“Down,” Shiro commands him, sitting on the edge of the bed, and Keith scrambles off the bed and onto the floor without hesitation, eyes wide and fiercely adoring as he kneels between Shiro’s legs.

Shiro finishes unbuttoning his pants, and opens them just enough for his cock to bounce free, thickening and already so wet. Keith makes a low, wrecked sound when Shiro takes himself in hand, stroking slow, letting Keith see how hard he is, just from him, all from him. With his claws, he grabs a handful of Keith’s hair, guiding his head to his cock. Keith’s lashes flutter when his lips touch the tip, and he looks like he wants to stay there awhile, mouthing over it, but Shiro doesn’t let him.

“Open,” Shiro says, and Keith does, opens his pretty mouth wide and soft and hot as he wraps his lips around Shiro’s cock, moaning at the first taste. The sight of Keith crouched between his spread thighs, cheeks hollowing and lips stretched wide and shameless, is one Shiro will be thinking about for centuries to come, he thinks, groaning as Keith sinks down further, struggling to fit the entire length and girth in his mouth. Thankfully, Shiro can help with that.

Keith gags, brow furrowing in frustration as he starts to pull back, but Shiro holds him fast. Keith’s eyes dart up, more confused than panicky. “Don’t choke,” Shiro orders, and Keith’s eyes widen in realization as his body, helplessly, obeys. “Not unless you want to.”

In reply, Keith pushes forward until his nose is buried in silver curls, taking all of it beautifully, nuzzling at Shiro’s skin with soft contentment and closing his eyes fully. Heavens, Shiro loves him.

Keith’s throat works around the crown of his cock and they both moan, the sound of it sloppy and obscene. Shiro’s claws tighten in his hair, then pull, and as he does he lets Keith feel how he feels when Keith sucks his cock, and Keith gasps, throat opening wider and spit running down his chin as he sucks harder, chasing the feeling that Shiro shares with him.

“Isn’t that good, darling?” Shiro murmurs, tugging his hair again, and each time he tugs he lets another wave of his own arousal pour over Keith. Keith’s face is flushed, his cock reddening, but Shiro won’t let him touch it. “You see how good your mouth feels? Like it was made for this, made for warming my cock for as long as I like.”

Keith’s eyebrows scrunch together and he licks sloppily over hard veins and swollen flesh with newfound resolve, bobbing his head with Shiro’s hand, then hips, to guide him. Shiro thrusts up into his throat and Keith takes it, making breathy, whimpery sounds at each punishing roll of Shiro’s hips. “Put your hands behind your back,” Shiro pants, his free hand grabbing at the sheets as Keith obeys. “Good boy,” Shiro groans, tipping his head back to the canopy, Keith’s clever tongue flicking over the tip then swirling down, like he knows how to do this, like he’s been thinking about this for, well, ten years.

Just as he’s getting close, Shiro stops Keith with his hand when Keith’s face is pressed close up against him, Shiro’s entire cock sheathed in his mouth and throat. Keith breathes harshly through his nose when Shiro doesn’t let him move, just gazes down at him there, and briefly considers keeping him there for awhile longer, keeping them both on the edge for hours, savoring the tight wet warmth of Keith’s mouth for as long as he likes. Keith makes a plaintive sound in reply, and Shiro snorts.

“Very well,” he sighs, “if you want it so badly, then come.”

Keith’s eyes fly wide as his cock spurts instantly, and Shiro holds him there, so that his frantic moans vibrate around Shiro’s cock while his body spasms, the unexpected climax shuddering through them both. Keith twitches, his throat also convulsing around Shiro’s cock, and it’s enough to tip him over the edge, between the sensation and the sight of Keith’s overwhelmed expression. His chest rises and falls rapidly as he struggles to breathe, to moan, to plead, all at once, all while Shiro’s cock floods his mouth, white running out of the corners of his mouth and down his chin with the spit and blood already there.

Shiro takes pity and releases him halfway through, though it is partly for his own benefit, to see white splatter Keith’s flushed cheeks and watch it spill from his lips in messy rivulets. Keith tries to hide his face in Shiro’s thigh, panting loud and ragged, louder when Shiro nudges Keith’s softening cock back into full arousal with a mere thought.

He grabs Keith’s jaw, claws digging in, and rubs the tip of his cock over Keith’s swollen lips, painting them white, smearing the cum already there back into Keith’s mouth. Keith mouths at it in little, shivery kisses, like he doesn’t quite know what to do with his mouth. Shiro lets Keith suckle at his cock like this until he’s captured every last drop, and then Shiro pushes him away.

With a soft whine, Keith slumps down on his knees, head bowed and hands still clasped behind his back. The light in Shiro’s mind shivers, an uncertain ember, and in ardent reply Shiro smothers it with every last bit of pride and satisfaction and fondness and the protective, unceasing love he has for the human curled at his feet. The stars all around them burn brighter, Keith’s brightest of all. Keith inhales sharply, his shivering worsening, and when Shiro tells him to look up, his eyes are shocked and shiny, his face is red, and his relief is palpable.

And somehow – Shiro doesn’t know how, for he has never experienced this with any other thrall – Keith returns the wave of protective, adoring approval tenfold, a brilliance pushing outwards, rippling through the darkness like so many fireflies, clinging to Shiro wherever they can reach, which is everywhere.

Shiro lifts Keith up from the floor and into his lap, and slides his rather ruined pants off the rest of the way so they are fully bare against each other. They fall down onto the bed so he can hold him close and kiss the trembling away from both of their lips. Shiro gasps against his messy mouth, “My heart, how did you do that?”

Shiro is letting him reply but even so, it takes Keith a while – he remains tucked into the curve of Shiro’s body, remembering how to breathe and mouthing absently at Shiro’s neck as if it calms him before murmuring, “I – I just –” He presses closer, noses into the dip of Shiro’s collarbones. “You are good, too,” he mumbles. “Want you to – to know that…”

“Good?” Shiro muses, and holds him tighter. “You certainly make me feel that I could be.”

“You are,” Keith says, not a doubt in his mind – Shiro knows this, for he can see within it. He believes it with every glowing fibre of his being.

“Keith,” Shiro whispers, shaky.

“You are good,” Keith repeats, and when Shiro’s hold on him releases he wraps around Shiro like a particularly affectionate and handsome cephalopod. Keith giggles at the thought, and nuzzles under Shiro’s jaw happily like Shiro isn’t capable of paralyzing him at any moment. “Yes, yes, you are a truly terrifying creature of the night,” Keith huffs in amusement, “but I don’t mind.” He kisses Shiro’s neck, grazes his teeth over it, and sighs. “Because I know you. I know you, Takashi.”

“Better than anyone else, perhaps,” Shiro admits, and ducks his head down to tip Keith’s chin up into a chaste kiss turned filthy when he licks his own seed from Keith’s tongue. “I would have it no other way, darling,” he murmurs in their shared breath, easing Keith down to the bed under him. “You are a vision, you know…”

“I am not,” Keith exclaims, and has the audacity to scoff at him. “Shiro – really, there’s no need for empty flattery, we both know I have no fine breeding, so let’s not pretend I am anything other than –”

Shiro bites him again. Keith’s scream is strangled, muffled when Shiro’s palm comes down hard over his mouth. Shiro does not take too much blood, but he lets Keith feel his fangs, feel the way Keith’s hot blood fills his mouth, feel the way Shiro drowns in its warm ecstasy, feel Shiro’s desire for him, all of him. In the same moment, Shiro feels the exquisite lightning Keith feels when bitten, the way Keith lets go, surrenders to the sensation, to Shiro, and does so with absolute trust.

Do you know how you look to me? Shiro demands, shadows swirling around light which grows as rosy as a sunrise within his clutches. He licks the blood welling up, and makes no attempt to be neat about it. Look at yourself, he says, and fills both their minds with Keith’s face, with the needy sprawl of his nude body, with his sunshine skin and starlit eyes. This is what I see when I look at you.

He opens his eyes, and Keith is curled away under him, forearm thrown over his face as he babbles, “Shiro – I don’t, that isn’t – please – ah –”

Shiro kisses his fingers, his knuckles, his wrist, then bites the soft underside of his forearm and lifts it away from Keith’s burning face. He withdraws his fangs after only a second or two, focusing instead on soothing the wound, on coaxing the blood to the surface with slow, tender licks, healing it enough to leave only a violet bruise. He cradles Keith’s arm as he feeds, and murmurs, “I may not have a god, nor saints, nor any belief in the sanctity of churches and crosses, but I believe in you, Keith, and unholy and godless though I may be, I would worship you, if you let me.”

Keith peeks at him through his fingers and messy hair. “Takashi,” he whispers.

“You deserve it,” Shiro adds, “though you do not need me to say so. I would give you the world if I could, Keith. The whole damned city, the empire on a golden platter.”

Keith gazes up at him and swallows. “I don’t want cities or empires,” he whispers. “I just want you.”

“And you shall have me,” Shiro promises, and descends down his body, kissing flushed skin as he goes.

Blearily, Keith tries to sit up. “Aren’t you going to take me…?”

“Relax, my dear one,” he murmurs, rubbing circles into Keith’s hips and thighs and pushing him back down with a single finger in the center of his chest. “I am going to show you something nice, first.” He pauses at the juncture of Keith’s thighs, and tilts his head. “Spread your legs, for me, and cross your wrists over your head, yes, like that.” Keith blinks at him, but does not question it. “Relax,” Shiro repeats. “I will take care of you.”

Keith shudders, head falling back limply on the pillows. “Please,” he says, barely a word.

“You will be bound,” Shiro tells him softly, layering kisses over his waist, his belly, his dark trail of thick black hair, his soft inner thighs, “as if by rope, but there will be no rope, only this.” He taps the side of his head. “Yes?”

Keith nods, and closes his eyes, just like that.

He groans when Shiro binds him in place moments later, and arches as much as he is able when Shiro takes Keith’s cock into his mouth. Keith’s pleasure is lovely and luminous, pulsing within them both. Shiro closes his own eyes and bobs his head in a slow, building rhythm, savoring the taste and heat and weight of Keith’s generous length over his tongue.

He takes special care to cover his teeth – for now – and hums with every wanting twitch and tremor, inhaling the scent of man and blood and sweat and want and Keith, and thinking he would die happy this very moment, if Keith turned out to be an elite vampire hunter on a clandestine and highly convoluted mission, more interested in stabbing Shiro’s eye out than getting his cock sucked.

Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case. Thank the Lord, because Shiro loves sucking cock.

He makes sure Keith knows this, both in thought and action, and is rewarded with each one of Keith’s breathless moans, his body rippling under Shiro’s hands, his strangled curses, his cock jumping when Shiro slides his fangs in neatly to the thick vein at the base.

Keith goes very still, a drawn out, quiet sort of scream escaping his gritted teeth. “Shiro,” he croaks, “Shiro?!”

Shiro hums, eyes half-lidded as he watches Keith’s dick drip onto his belly, no less hard than before. I am not done, he thinks very loudly, and releases burning, tingling venom, closing his lips around Keith’s twitching cock like a brand as Keith shouts, hips bucking, only serving to force Shiro’s fangs deeper. You have a thick cock, Shiro tells him with great satisfaction, and it is quite satisfying to feed from.

Keith chants his name in broken strings of sound, unable to form a coherent reply in thought or otherwise. His muscles stand out in sharp relief as he tries and fails to free himself, giving up entirely when Shiro takes the rest of his cock in hand.

He rubs his thumb and a teasing claw over the crown, catching briefly in the slit while he suckles gently at the base before finally taking pity and withdrawing. Shiro makes certain to lick the precise wound thoroughly closed with sloppy kisses and a sloppier tongue, continuing down over his sac and again to his inner thighs, which Shiro quickly discovers are quite sensitive.

It is not surprising that it doesn’t take Keith long to come from this treatment, but the real surprise is that what finally tips him over the coveted edge is a stray swipe of Shiro’s tongue over his hole, entirely on accident – he swears – but it is enough for Keith to gasp out a faint warning before white arcs from his tortured cock, falling in sticky puddles over his taut stomach. Shiro does not give him time to recover before dragging his tongue through the mess and flipping him over onto said stomach. He tells himself he’s been meaning to purchase new bedding for months, anyway.

He stops thinking about bedding when Keith is on display before him, arching and needy, pillowing his head on his bitten forearm and tilting his hips up at Shiro’s coaxing, still half-bound. Shiro kisses the nape of his neck and imagines a black ribbon there. Keith shakes. Yes, the golden light promises, yes, I am yours.

As I am yours, Shiro says. He squeezes Keith’s hip. “Stay, my love, I will not be long away.” He starts to move off the bed and the light flares with frantic intensity, stopping him short.

Where are you going? Keith demands, for he may be passive in pose, but not in their shared headspace.

Shiro raises his eyebrow. “We are going to need oil,” he says, “for much as I would like to open you up on my tongue, I do not have the patience, and I think you feel the same.”

Keith groans into his arm. Go, he orders. Now.

Shiro kisses his shoulder, teasing, and hurries off to the armoire to find the expensive oil Allura bought him from Italy. She would have his head if she found out he was using it for this – and has, indeed, used it often enough on himself.

He feels Keith’s eyes on him all the while, narrowed and expectant, and when the shadows shift, Shiro swears, they faintly glow. Such a thing is, of course, impossible. Still, there is something familiar and predatory in Keith’s expression as Shiro returns to the bed with the glass bottle, uncorking it on the way.

His face softens, though, when Shiro draws him in for a kiss, broken off abruptly when Shiro manhandles Keith so that his ass rubs up against Shiro’s cock, Keith’s splayed thighs straddling his thighs as he kneels behind him, Keith’s chest and face pressed to the bedsheets. Keith’s breath comes out in a rush when Shiro spreads his cheeks, thumbs ghosting over where he is so tightly furled, and where Shiro knows he will open beautifully to his cock.

“I will,” Keith groans, though Shiro never gave him permission. The limits of a thrall, it seems, do not wholly apply to Keith unless he wishes them to. Curious.

Shiro pours oil over his fingers. “Can you feel my venom, still?” he murmurs.

“My cock still hurts, if that is what you mean,” Keith retorts. Impatience makes him bratty.

“Oh, let me take your mind off of that,” Shiro says sympathetically, and hits the tempting curve of Keith’s ass hard enough that pale flesh is stained splotchy pink, and it bounces under the force of the smack.

Keith’s moan sounds punched-out of him. “Fuck,” he whispers into the sheets.

“Mm,” Shiro agrees. “Now be quiet.”

Keith’s next sound is a muffled whine, but he stops that when Shiro squeezes his ass in warning where it still stings. Despite his earlier talk of running out of patience, he takes his time working a finger inside of Keith, letting him adjust in slow stages and kissing the heated skin he struck when Keith tenses and huffs in slight discomfort at two curling fingers.

He knows, though, from the unceasing radiance that throbs warm and bright between them and from the more obvious swell of Keith’s cock rutting against his thigh that the human is alright; that is most important.

You sap, Keith sighs.

Let me fret over you a little, Shiro replies. You are always fretting over me, anyway.

Keith’s body shakes with soft laughter. That is true enough. I wouldn’t have to if you took better care of yourself.

Maybe I just like your fretting over me, a little.

That makes two of us, Keith admits. Though you really should spend less time working and more time eating and sleeping properly.

Somehow I don’t think that’s going to be as much of an issue, now, Shiro chuckles, and cards his claws through Keith’s hair. Now hush. Or have you decided to stop following my orders?

I would follow you anywhere, Keith murmurs absently, sinking once more into the darkness, light not dimmed but willingly and wholly eclipsed.

He is fully slumped onto the bed by the time Shiro works three fingers inside of him, stroking Keith’s hair with his claws all the while. It is good to be able to use them for something that brings pleasure, not pain.

The arch of Keith’s body yields to him, opening all at once when Shiro finds that perfect place inside of him, and rubs his fingers there in insistent circles; in reply, he feels Keith’s cock leaking and hears his shaky, startled moans. His own cock throbs, but he waits until Keith’s rim stretches well around three fingers and the barest tease of a fourth before pulling them free.

Even after that, he takes his time playing with the shiny gape of Keith’s hole, so that it flutters and winks under his featherlight touches, expecting to be filled. How could he deny it?

Keith’s spine bows when Shiro lines up his cock with Keith’s hole and presses in, hefting Keith up with a hand splayed over his thigh, dragging Keith back further onto his cock. He sees Keith’s head loll, his left hand reach out to nothing before grabbing at the sheets, tight. Shiro admires the way he fills Keith so completely, and groans in appreciation when Keith tightens around his cock with an answering gorgeous, throaty noise Shiro feels in the core of his being.

Keith was right, he thinks, he is large. The difference is especially obvious in this position. Keith is putty in his hands, his hands which look truly huge over the human’s lithe frame; his left hand covering Keith’s entire upper thigh and wrapping around it nearly entirely, too. He thinks his hands would look quite good around Keith’s sweet neck, and reminds himself sternly of gentleness.

Shiro holds Keith’s head down with his clawed right hand, but there is little force in it, because truth be told, he does not want this to be forceful. They both know he could take Keith with more power and roughness than a human. But just because he can does not mean he will. Not this first time. He wants to prove to them both that he can be gentle, and good. He knows that to Keith, he has nothing to prove, which makes him want to do so all the more.

So Shiro pets his hair and tells Keith he is a good boy, that he is beautiful and clever and kind and he is so lucky to have him. And when he leans down over Keith to sink his fangs in one last time where his pulse beats in a steady, irresistible cadence below the scar left by another, he thinks that there may be some justice in the world if Keith ended up here with him, and not dead in the Ripper’s alleys.

His venom must still run through Keith’s veins, for he stays pliant and reacts to every touch both within and without — though maybe that is just how Keith is. Towards the end of it, his soft sounds pitch higher, increasingly desperate and hitched up at the ends.

Shiro fucks him slow, but the pace does not seem to matter so much as the force, and Shiro can be gentle, but when he pulls almost all the way out and thrusts back in hard enough to shove Keith forwards, the sound Keith makes is distinctly a sob, and so Shiro does it again, and again, grunting at the wicked slap of skin on skin, of Keith’s noises tumbling into incoherency, of his cock pressed hard and wet between them.

“Are you going to cry for me, darling?” Shiro asks, fangs grazing the shell of Keith’s ear. “Are you going to cry and come, just for me?”

He could make Keith do it, he could. He could tug on the strings of his thrall and send him hurtling into tearstained climax. But it is better to brush Keith’s hair out of his eyes, to watch as his face crumples naturally, as the tears brimming in the corners of his dark eyes finally fall.

Shiro thinks he might be one of the only people who has ever seen Keith cry — it is a rare honor. He leans in, kisses tears away, licks up salt and blood and fucks into Keith once, twice, then slips his hand around Keith’s neglected cock on the third, and gets a thoroughly soaked and sticky palm for his trouble. The vice grip milking his cock dry and the silent cry of his name from Keith’s slack mouth are even better.

In the darkness, Keith is not silent. Keith’s cry of his name echoes through the shadows and stars like distant music.

Shiro buries his cock deep and comes, nuzzling into Keith’s bruised and bitten neck as he does. Keith makes a pleased, sleepy sound and tilts his head to nuzzle Shiro nose to nose, his back arching anew at the sensation of being filled in a different way. Keith hums, and Shiro doesn’t know if the contentment that washes over him is his own or Keith’s. He supposes it doesn’t matter — Keith is sated and smiling at him through his mussed hair, and that derails his train of thought entirely.

Shiro bumps his nose against Keith’s. “Hello,” he murmurs.

“Hello,” Keith yawns. “I think I could fall asleep like this.”

Shiro huffs at him. “I’m not certain whether to take that as a compliment or not.”

Keith squints at him. “I have trouble sleeping,” he mumbles. “Did you know that? My mind — cannot rest, I suppose. But, with you…” Keith closes his eyes. “I feel very peaceful. Safe. Sleep is — easy, when it never was before. Mm…”

Shiro nudges him when he is quiet for a bit. “Keith?”

Keith cracks an eye open. “I’m alive,” he grumbles. “Alive, and about to fall asleep, unless you have more in store.”

“No, no more,” Shiro chuckles. He pulls out carefully, but it’s still a mess, and Keith still winces, though Shiro takes comfort in the fact that he’s dozing less than a minute later. Shiro returns the bottle of oil to its shelf and sits on the edge of the bed beside Keith, sprawled facedown and fast asleep.

The thrall has not ended and Shiro is not sure he wants it to. He likes being able to both see and feel Keith’s presence in his head, and his warm radiance is addictive, but Shiro supposes that is rather the point. Vampires keep humans thralled for their entire lifetimes because they are addicted, obsessed with having utter control over such vitality.

But Shiro is in love, not obsessed. He has felt both, and they are as different as night and day. Love is the night, for him. Safe, and secret, and starry-eyed. He lays down beside Keith for a while longer, stroking his hair out of his face, and wondering at how quickly humans change, and yet how Keith has stayed the same in so many ways.

He releases the thrall, and it is simple, a cut thread. It does not make his heart feel any less full. And when he leaves the bed only to return with a wet cloth to clean Keith’s slumbering body, he does not need a thrall to know that Keith is dreaming of happy things, for the human’s lips tug up at the corners when Shiro draws the cloth with care over his neck, and when Shiro touches the cloth to the corner of his lips, he murmurs, “Shiro…” without waking.

It is difficult to leave him, especially after that, but Shiro knows he will do Keith more good downstairs than snuggled up with him for however long Keith dreams. So Shiro pulls on a robe — a black velvet one Allura brought from her annual trip to Paris, and one which he thinks she specifically intended for post-coital use, for Lotor has a very similar one, albeit in royal purple — and leaves the room, though only after covering Keith with a sheet, because he might be cold (and because the thought of anyone walking in and seeing Keith in this state makes his blood boil).

The house is quiet as Shiro walks downstairs, head tilted to catch any other signs of life. The back parlor is still a mass of bodies, but most of those bodies are still asleep. Mr. H and Lance Espinosa are snuggled together on the largest sofa. They smell like sex and hold each other like friends who do not yet know they are in love, so are most honest in slumber. Shiro makes a note to speak to Mr. H. He seems an interesting fellow.

A floorboard creaks, not far off, and Shiro turns his head to the sound, eyes narrowing as he scents the air. Whoever they are, he can’t smell them — another vampire, then. Shiro creeps through the back parlor and peers into the front, but it is a similar array of exhausted bodies and bare skin. Lotor is among them, drooling into one of Shiro’s very expensive silk pillows, Griffin tucked under one arm, and several other thralls dogpiling around him. Someone else, however, is markedly absent.

Shiro walks, slow and measured, to the kitchens. He sends all the human servants away during these events for their own safety, so the space is quiet and deserted, save for the approaching footfalls, so soft Shiro can only hear them when he holds his breath.

He rounds the corner, steps into the kitchen, and locks eyes with Allura, who pauses in pouring a bottle of wine. Both of their tight-coiled bodies relax, two familiar predators coming face to face. Shiro takes in her mildly disheveled appearance — only mildly, because Allura is always some degree of impeccably radiant — and tilts his head. She resumes pouring the wine, which Shiro has a suspicion is not for her.

“You too?” he chuckles.

Her lips quirk, and she recorks the bottle. “Lotor has a fondness for aged Burgundy red in the morning.” She swirls the wine in the glass, and they both watch it. It could be blood, if it were thicker. “I cannot fault him. For those who we feed from, sweet drinks are helpful after these soirées. As I am sure you know.”

“I do,” Shiro murmurs. “That is why I am awake, though I was hoping to bring something more substantial than wine upstairs.”

“I’m happy for you, my friend,” she says. “Even if your thrall over him was so loud that it kept me from sleeping.” She winks and puts the wine away while Shiro splutters at her.

“It isn’t my fault that you can sense our magic better than anyone else!” Shiro exclaims. “Oh, Christ. Did anyone else – I mean, do the others...know?”

Allura purses her lips. “Why, would that be so tragic?”

“No,” Shiro mutters, “it’s just – you know how many vampires would view such a relationship. I’m not even, well, a young vampire. Nor is Keith a very old human. They would not understand what Keith truly means to me, and they would demean him because of it. I do not want him to be seen as some – some pet .”

“Normally I would agree with you,” Allura says, “but you and Keith have been the talk of London’s Midnight Court for years, now. Oh, do not look so surprised, Shiro. You two may have been oblivious, but I have eyes and ears everywhere. I think they will be relieved, truth be told. But…” She tilts her head, eyes glinting. “If anyone does dare to say that dear Keith is your ‘pet,’ believe me, Takashi, it would be my pleasure to politely correct them.”

“A true friend,” Shiro says. “And I hope you’re right.”

“I know. I am often right.” Allura folds her arms. “Do you know how to cook?”

“I am a bit out of practice,” Shiro admits, but rolls up his sleeves. “Do you?”

“Please, Shiro,” Allura tosses over her shoulder, “I have not always been a vampire princess. Would you believe, once upon a time, I baked my own bread and made jams from wild plums and figs, all by myself?”

“How plebeian,” Shiro teases, following her to the pantry and catching with ease the sack of flour she throws at him. “Next you’re going to tell me you did work with your own two hands.”

She heaves a dramatic sigh. “Alas, I did indeed. Oh, good, you have eggs here. Are there sausage? Those will help Keith regain his strength.”

“Yes, here.” Shiro opens up a barrel and wrinkles his nose. Ironically, meat does not smell very good to him, but he knows it will to Keith, so he bears it. “What sort of work did you do?” Shiro adds, offhandedly. He and Allura, like many vampires, do not talk much about their previous lives, and with good reason. They live comfortably now, but it was not always so.

Allura pauses, holding the basket of speckled eggs to her chest. She looks much younger, for a moment. “I herded sheep, of all things,” she replies, “in the middle of the desert. I would lead them over great sand dunes, and to green oases, and weave colorful tapestries of their fleece. It’s like a dream, now. Not a bad dream, mostly. They were good sheep, and it was a good desert. But that was a long, long time ago.” She sighs, and touches one of the eggs absently. “Though...some day, I will return to that desert. Somehow.” She glances up.

“I was a fisherman’s son, but you already know that,” Shiro offers. “I do not remember much of it. I was ill, there was a forest, and the villagers did not care much for outsiders.” He peers into the barrel, then back up at Allura.

“I am glad you turned me,” he says. “I do not know if I have ever told you that before, but I am. If you had not turned me, we would not be friends, and I would never have met Keith.” He gives her a rueful smile. “I owe you far more than a crateful of those silk fans.”

“Oh, Shiro.” Allura smiles back, not rueful at all. “Be there when Keith wakes up, love him as dearly as he loves you, and we will call it even.” She plucks a baguette from its shelf, and puts her hand on her hip. “Now,” she declares, “it is time for us to prepare the best breakfast Keith has ever eaten.”

When all is said and done, it is worth burning his fingertips on the iron pot and smelling the sizzling breakfast meats when he brings it up to Keith just in time for him to wake and to smile up at Shiro with soft, open wonder; to pull him close without any reservation at all; to kiss him warm and endless, and to say once more the words Shiro thought he would never hear from the one he has loved long before he even had a name for the feeling.